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Why ‘Tolerance’ For Islam Is Really Contempt


I’m starting to wonder how any Muslim can stand the way Islam is treated in America. I know I can’t put myself in anyone else’s shoes, but it seems to me the constant, patronizing dismissal of their religion must be maddening. I’m talking about the almost universal unwillingness among liberals in the media to let Islam be Islam, but to make it as much as possible a Western liberal way of life instead.

After 9/11, President George W. Bush called Islam a religion of peace. President Obama refuses to use the words “Islamic” and “terrorism” in the same sentence. The New York Times and Huffington Post said Christianity should take the blame for the Orlando shooting.

They’ve meant well. They’ve tried to give honor to Islam as a major world religion. To honor a religion, however, requires taking it seriously, and taking it seriously means understanding it for what it is — its beliefs, its characteristic attitudes and culture, its own expectations of its people — not what outsiders might hope or wish or even believe it to be. It means dealing with Islam on its own terms rather than Western liberalism’s terms.

There’s precious little sign our leaders have ever taken Islam that seriously. I do not know of any elected official who has said, “Islam is a religion of peace, and this is how we know it is, following a thoughtful examination of its teachings.” I cannot recall any Western leader telling us, “Islam is a religion of peace today, in spite of its founder’s warlike ways and its violent expansion through its early centuries — because it clearly and deeply instructs its people such-and-so.” That is, I do not know of any leader who has actually explained in Islam’s own terms why we can be confident that terrorist acts performed by Muslims can never rightly be considered Islamic terrorism, or why (more recently) some commentators’ Christian beliefs should be considered more responsible than Islam’s for the Orlando shootings.

It’s one thing to make assurances to that effect. It’s another thing to engage with Islam deeply enough to know what one is talking about, and to demonstrate publicly that one has done so.

I’ve looked into Islam and its beliefs, and I’ve drawn certain conclusions, but those conclusions are no part of my argument here. I am merely addressing the Western liberal practice of speaking “tolerantly” about Islam without speaking knowledgeably about Islam; or at least without explaining how everyone else, given sufficient knowledge, would be justified in agreeing with their conclusions.

We’ll Explain You on Our Terms

Muslims see men, women, and children day by day sacrificing their lives in the names of Allah, Muhammad, and Islam. If I followed that religion, I might agree or disagree with the way they have interpreted our shared religion. My views on that would be founded in my understanding of Islam. My interpretation would be a Muslim interpretation. My moral attitudes toward it would be determined by my Muslim theology.

I would also hear Westerners explaining Muslims’ violence under every category except Islam. I might hear them writing it off as the fruit of economic and political conditions, or Western oppression of immigrant communities, or Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, or too many guns in America — all of which are Western categories. I would hear that it was really Christians who were responsible for fellow Muslims’ decisions. I would see these interpreters preening over their tolerance toward my religion while treating my fellow believers as pawns being manipulated by external forces beyond their control.

I can’t see how that kind of “tolerance” would come across as anything but liberal-Western-centric — possibly even self-referential, self-satisfied, know-it-all Western-centric. That isn’t compassion, it’s condescension. It isn’t tolerance, it’s a smug, superior pat on the head. I’d be infuriated if someone did that toward my religion and beliefs.

Of course I can’t really imagine what it would be like to be a Muslim in America. But it sure seems to me that if I really believed in Islam, I’d be willing — eager, even — to have it put to the test, to let its mettle be proven. I wouldn’t want anyone glossing over my beliefs with East Coast American paint. I’d want them peering deep inside, looking deeply into my religion’s beliefs. I’d want them digging into the way Islam has characteristically expressed its beliefs, from Muhammad onward.

I can’t imagine any true Muslim shying away for a moment from that kind of investigation. Why should they? If Islam is what it claims to be, it should welcome that kind of challenge.

Instead (at least in public) Westerners treat it gingerly, cautiously, like a fragile thing: “Don’t look in there! You’ll hurt it!” What could be more disrespectful? What could be less tolerant?

Questions Are a Sign of Respect

Let’s be honest. Islam has a history of war. It may or may not be worse than any other religion, but there is at least enough there, both in ancient and modern history, to lead a person to wonder about Islam’s inherent peacefulness. So let’s go ahead and wonder! Why not? It’s only a question, after all — a question that deserves exploration. If Islam can stand the investigation, then by all means let it stand the investigation and prevail!

There need not be any prejudicial prior assumption of what the answer will be. There ought, however, to be the question. If we don’t explore the possibility, we can’t know the reality.

If we can’t know the reality, then which “Islam” are we tolerating? More than likely it will be an invention of our own, produced out of Western liberal assumptions.

So (with all due disclaimers again) I think if I were a Muslim I’d say it’s high time Western leaders who say “Islam is a religion of peace,” to follow it with a clear and knowledgeable statement: “and this is how we know.” If they can’t explain that, both clearly and comprehensively, then I’d want them to quit making empty, patronizing claims to that effect.

For even though claims can be empty, major world religions never are. They have substance. Islam is no exception. It has its own unique realities. There is enormous variety within Islam, but there is unity as well; and in that unity and variety Islam is what it is, not what Western leaders proclaim it to be. We owe it to Muslims to find out the realities of their religion by engaging with Islam on its own terms, not ours.

I’m not a Muslim. I haven’t heard any Muslim standing up to demand the kind of respect I’ve written about here. I don’t know why, and I won’t speculate. I’ll just speak for myself, and say I think they deserve that much respect from us.